Archive for March, 2009

PETER BJORN AND JOHN – Living Thing (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on March 31, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Peter Bjorn and John - Living Thing Living Thing is a bit of a misnomer for Peter Bjorn and John’s latest album; it’s the furthest thing from alive I’ve heard all year. This is less of an insult than it might appear to be, as the band’s music has always been rather relaxed and insular. But on Writer’s Block, the band took their casual atmosphere and let it roam out into areas it previously hadn’t ventured to; that crucial decision was what made the album as great as it is. So, as if to counteract the damage done by that move, the band released Seaside Rock last year, which, unfortunately, was a lifeless collection of (mostly) instrumentals that sounded phoned in from some Caribbean hell. I was hoping that Living Thing (the band’s newest “proper” album – Seaside Rock was available only as a vinyl and a digital download) would fare better, but alas, it does not. And what’s more frustrating is that, in many ways, it’s worse.

You needn’t look far for proof of this than the album’s first single, Nothing To Worry About; the chorus is essentially an annoying redux of the chorus of Amsterdam, and the song is propelled forward by some comically out of place hip-hop beats augmented with natural percussion. Simply put, it’s horrendous. Now, I’m all for bands experimenting, but I also know that experimentation only works if the band’s spirit (whatever it is that makes them special) is present in the new work. This is why The Dillinger Escape Plan were able to successfully cover Justin Timberlake’s Like I Love You, and this is why Casiotone For The Painfully Alone failed to cover Missy Elliot’s Hot Boyz on their recent compilation: one sounds sincere and the other one doesn’t.

If Living Thing was merely insincere, I could write it off as a misguided effort, and that would be that. But Living Thing is more than insincere. It’s musically stuffy and it’s structurally repetitive (and not in a glorious pop way, either) and, it’s depressingly empty. Those are three very bad things for any album to be. A hot indie release of 2009 this is not. I’d avoid it.

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MSTRKRFT – Fist of God (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on March 30, 2009 by monopolyphonic

MSTRKRFT - Fist of God Like a great many people, I miss Death From Above 1979. It’s a bit difficult , but I’ve learned to live with it. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect Jesse Keeler to go on to front a band like MSTRKRFT (pronounced “Masterkraft” – the reasonnig behind omitting all vowels from the band name eludes me, but I won’t argue with it).

While MSTRKRFT’s debut album, The Looks was released a few weeks before DFA1979 officially called it quits, I didn’t hear the album until the end of the year. As far as electro dance-punk goes, it wasn’t bad, but ultimately, all it really did was make me miss Keeler’s previous band. Trading in the unrestrained energy of songs like Blood On Our Hands and Romantic Rights for the bubbly Hot Chip emulation that comprised the album’s first single, Easy Love, did not seem like a fair trade. Fist of God, by contrast, is a far more aggressive album – it’s sounds as if the band is trying to force their way into the nation’s dance clubs, going for broke in the process. And they do succeed, but albeit intermittently.

If you can’t wait for the next Justice album, Fist of God will be sure to tide you over until then. Much of MSTRKRFT’s sound here borrows heavily from ; it’s got the same slick beats juxtaposed next to the same rough, fuzzed-out synths. Just about every instrumental on here sounds as if it could be a B-side to Waters of Nazareth. And that’s all good. It’s when the band starts bringing in the guest stars that things tend to run out of steam. Hearing Ghostface Killah rap alongside whirring synths might work well in a Greg Gillis snippet, but four minutes of it becomes exhausting. Same goes for the two songs featuring Jahmal. Bounce, though, is the album’s worst offender. It’s grating and repetitive, a reminder that you can’t always spin the simplistic things into gold. One collaborative song that does get it right, though, is Heartbreaker (which features John Legend); the driving piano and soulful vocals make it sound like Jamiroquai on an electro-binge. It’s easily the album’s best song. Still, it’s disheartening to see that most of the opther collaborations here are D.O.A.

So. Fist of God is a bit unbalanced. But it’s far from a failure. And yes, it still kind of makes me miss Death From Above 1979, but hey, that might not mean anything to you. If it doesn’t, and you’re in to Justice, check this album out. If not, you might be better off waiting until next week for the Junior Boys’ new album.

BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY – Beware (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on March 29, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Beware Will Oldham has been steadily releasing music under various monikers since 1993; like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, Oldham defies the notion that quantity cannot always equal quality. No, Oldham has his cake, and eats it, too. Every time. And Beware, Oldham’s seventh release as Bonnie “Prince” Billy (before adopting this name, he was formerly known as Palace Music/Brothers/Songs), is yet another reminder that he’s in a class all his own.

While Oldham’s music has always been rooted in folk/country, his interpretations of these genres have always been rather diverse. As Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Oldham has previously the bleaker side of these genres with 1999’s I See A Darkness (an album that’s so fragile, vulnerable and raw that we’re not likely to hear anything remotely like it in the future). And he’s also managed to collaborate successfully with a variety of artists (including Tortoise, Matt Sweeney and Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables, with whom Oldham shared vocal duties with on 2006’s The Letting Go). But lately, Oldham has been taking a more traditional approach to his music, and the results have been just as wonderful. Last May, he released Lie Down In The Light, and now, less than a year later, we have Beware.

Despite its rather ominous title (and cover art), Beware does not follow the same forlorn path as I See A Darkness (a wise decision; once an artist has successfully gone down that road, it’d be foolish to attempt to retread it). Instead, Oldham strives to create an eerie disconnect between music that is often celebratory and dark, troubled lyrics (as exhibited best in the songs Beware Your Only Friend and I Am Goodbye). The result is that Beware is an album that functions on two levels that are completely independent of one another. In the hands of a lesser artist, such a decision could easily result in a musical trainwreck, but Oldham (as expected), pulls it off effortlessly.

As far as recent releases go, Beware puts album’s like M. Ward’s Hold Time and Heartless Bastards’ The Mountain to shame. Depending upon your affinity for Americana music, that should be more than enough to see if Beware is worth a purchase or not.

MONO – Hymn To The Immortal Wind (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on March 28, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Mono - Hymn To The Immortal Wind Since Mogwai have abandoned the soft/LOUD dynamic that made their earlier work so arresting in favor of a more streamlined (and sporadically successful) approach, Mono seem to have picked up the torch, and are carrying it onwards with arguably more conviction than any of their contemporaries (sorry, Explosions In The Sky). What sets Mono apart from the rest of the bands who specialize in mixing silence with violence is their somewhat antithetical approach to this contrasting style of music: instead of working with the obvious, and having the quieter parts be saccharin sweet while the louder parts rage out of control, Mono (more often than not), subvert this dichotomy. The quieter sections of Mono music are frequently ominous and troubling, while their louder sections (despite their soul-shattering decibel levels) are really quite beautiful (if you’re unsure as to what I’m talking about, good news! – Hymn To The Immortal Wind’s opening song, Ashes In The Snow, will explain everything).

Even though Mono are no strangers to working with strings (Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain, their 2005 collaboration with World’s End Girlfriend, is the closest thing to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album that we’re likely to hear until the band’s “temporary” hiatus ends), Hymn To The Immortal Wind is significant in that the entire album is performed in conjunction with a 28-piece (!!) chamber orchestra. As a result, the album is the grandest album Mono have ever crafted. The album’s centerpiece, Pure As Snow (Trails of the Winter Storm) is one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. It’s magnificent and terrifying, and the howling of electric guitars over the clockwork-constant drums is one hell of a thing to behold.

If you’re looking for an album that’s going to stretch every aspect of your senses to their absolute limit, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Because on Hymn To The Immortal Wind, Mono stretch everything past these sensory limits. Sound harsh? It’s not. It’s merely too beautiful words. Which is why I’m going to stop writing.

DAN DEACON – Bromst (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on March 26, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Dan Deacon - Bromst It took me awhile before I warmed up to Dan Deacon’s previous album, Spiderman of the Rings; I don’t normally come across music that’s as jubilant as it is obnoxious (and I mean that as a compliment – no, really). But looking back, that balance was what made the album work, even if it hindered my enjoyment of it initially. Because Mr. Deacon was free of the restraint of musical self-consciousness, he was able to craft some truly vivacious, whacked-out music. Like it’s predecessor, Bromst is equally vivacious and whacked-out. But it’s also remarkably expansive and cerebral, too, with a more detailed instrumentation and broader, occasionally surprising resonance.

Consider the song Wet Wings. Notice anything interesting about it? It unfolds in much the same manner as the Woody Woodpecker samples did that so caught the ire of many first-time listeners of Spiderman of the Rings (myself included). But here, it’s different; instead of feeling jovial, it feels murky instead. It feels mysterious, and (dare I say), a little frightening. And it’s totally entrancing. “Mysterious” and “entrancing” are two words that could describe a great of material on Bromst, particularly the opener Build Voice (which, as its title suggest, slowly emerges from nothingness, and concludes on a perfectly abrupt note) and the album’s clear stand-out song, Snookered (which feels to me like the Rhodes Scholar older brother of Wham City). And lest you think that Dan Deacon has lost touch with his inner child, the backend of Bromst won’t disappoint; Baltihorse and Woof Woof are two of his most joyously playful and entertaining songs.

In a recent studio interview, Dan Deacon was asked to describe what the title, Bromst signified. He replied that Bromst is like when a dragon wakes up, and he’s not horny, but could easily become horny. Then there’s a pause, just long enough for us to consider that statement. And then he laughs, saying that that quote shouldn’t be used at all. I bring this up only because something (and I’m not sure what) about that aforementioned interview snippet holds the key to what makes Dan Deacon’s music (and by extension, Bromst), so great.

MASTODON – Crack The Skye (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on March 25, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Mastodon - Crack The Skye Is 2009 the year that the prog-feigning bands finally surrender completely to their impulses? Well, based upon The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love and now Crack The Skye, I’d say so. Coming off of Blood Mountain (an album which had a hefty amount of prog leanings to it, and featured The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler Zavala on one of its songs for anyone who did not believe that this was so), Mastodon’s new-found populist success afforded them the opportunity to do pretty much whatever they wanted. What they did was release Crack The Skye, an album that sounds absolutely nothing like any of their previous work. And damn it all, if it doesn’t turn out to be one hell of a ride.

Crack The Skye sounds a bit like Neurosis, Porcupine Tree and Iced Earth fighting. But not brawling. Not like, smashing bar stools over each other’s heads or anything like that. No, it sounds more like they’re…fencing. Or participating in some other elegant combat sport where the chase is all. Parts of this album are so chock full of prog metal goodness that I had to do a double take and make sure my media player wasn’t skipping around on me. There’s an interlude in the middle of The Baron that sounds as if it fell out of a Liquid Tension Experiment album. The driving melody of Ghost of Karelia is reminiscent of Evergrey and the spirit of Rush (and their tendency of transmitting rock and roll via heady, angular rhythms) shows up on more than one occasion here.

Still, despite the album’s commitment to warping your mind musically at every turn, I wouldn’t call Crack The Skye Mastodon’s masterpiece. At the end of the day, it’s a little too smart and dexterous for its own good, and it lacks the emotional resonance of their earlier work ; there’s no gut-stirring glory of whale chasing or beast riding to be found here. And I think that that fervent euphoria is an integral part of what makes Mastodon work. On The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, for example, the band retain the most significant aspect of their music (their hyper-literate storytelling) and extend it across an album that’s as musically progressive as it’s narrative is structured. Crack The Skye, on the other hand, is strictly a left-brain workout. But it also happens to be the Mastodon album you didn’t know you were waiting for. And that’s going to be plenty for a lot of people and not nearly enough for others.

Which one will you be? Depends. How much do you know about Pineapple Thief?

THE DECEMBERISTS – The Hazards of Love (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on March 24, 2009 by monopolyphonic

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love I don’t have a lot of money, but if I did, I’d be willing to bet a sizable chunk of it on the fact that most Decemberists fans are gonna absolutely hate The Hazards of Love. And me? Well, I love it. But then again, unlike your average Decemberists fan, I routinely worship at the altars of Camel and The Flower Kings. So, that there should explain the prog discrepancy between myself and…well, most other indie fans.

The Decemberists have always had some significant prog leanings; their last album, The Crane Wife, had some songs that gleefully channeled the genre’s 1970’s glory – the most auspicious of these was The Island, a song that would’ve sounded right at home on King Crimson’s Islands. But The Hazards of Love goes beyond mere essence channeling and achieves something greater than simply being reminiscent of another era: it sounds as if it validates it. With all the unhinged prog and gentle folk on full display here, The Hazards of Love is decidedly (and delightfully) antiquated, yet at the same time, it feels modern. A paradoxical statement, I must admit, but a true one. If you’re not following me, allow me to rephrase: if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if The Decemberists did an entire album in the style of their criminally underrated EP, The Tain, wonder no more, because this right here, is it.

Even though there’s seventeen tracks on the album, it’s essentially one ever-shifting composition, so breaking it down for analysis isn’t easy, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid totally fucking destroys, and the cyclical nature of the four movements of the title track are a joy to revel in (listen to them in sequential order, separated from the rest of the album – it’s a wonderful experience, much like properly arranging the movements of The Crane Wife was). Ultimately, though, it’s hard to compare The Hazards of Love to the rest of The Decemberists’ oeuvre, as it’s so drastic a departure. But ten years from now, I can see people citing it as the band’s masterwork. It’s a towering and vast album, and it’s not easy to wrap your head around the first few times through. But it’s intriguing and powerful enough to return to, again and again.